Connoisseurs of the vacation

In their daily life, the French constantly ask one another about their plans for holidays - with good reason. With the introduction of the 35-hour workweek in 2000, five weeks of mandatory holiday turned into seven. Holidays aren't just a relaxation in France, they're a way of life.

When North Americans see how much time the French spend on holidays, they can't help wondering how the French get any work done. And how does their economy survive?

We lived in Paris from 1999 to 2001 to study the French for an American institute. Many of our assumptions were turned upside down - including our prejudices about the French taking too many holidays. The main reason they "manage" to afford their holidays is that they work hard the rest of the year. They've also found ways of making holidays economically productive.

Contrary to many North American assumptions, France - according to wealth produced per hour worked - is one of the most productive countries in Europe. Labor is expensive in France, so industries are extremely mechanized. The French would be even richer if they limited their paid holidays to two weeks, but they look at the problem differently. If fewer people are necessary to produce the same wealth, they reason, then why not translate that wealth into more holidays? As many of our French friends remarked, whether holidays are good or bad for the economy is beside the point: "The economy is supposed to work for us, not the other way around!"

Although the French project a hedonistic image, they work long, hard days - when they work. French workdays don't start later than in North America, but they do end later.We lived in a popular Paris neighborhood, and the Metro rush hour there lasted until 8 p.m.

The French also have a very distinct work ethic. They pretend they're not busy even when they're working like crazy.

"To us, looking relaxed shows you're in control," a friend explained. Hence, long leisurely lunches at cafes. Make no mistake: They're working hard, they just don't have stigmas about taking their time and looking relaxed in public.

As to the social costs of holidays, the French argue that their economy has faced far greater challenges than generous holidays for workers. The way they look at it, if their economy absorbed women entering the workforce and the introduction of weekends and statutory holidays - impossible dreams a century ago - it can certainly survive the 35-hour week. And, for that matter, a lot of the wealth produced in France during the last six centuries was spent on war. Europe has been at peace since 1945, and the fantastic wealth that was once devoted to destruction and reconstruction is now spent on leisure. And who but the French understand best how productive holidays can be? A leisure society is good business. France welcomes 75 million foreigners a year, making it the most visited country in the world. (A mere 51 million visit the United States.)

One essential tool of survival in France is the so-called mailman's almanac. It contains a calendar of saints, the complete list of départements (territorial units), and - most important - the national holiday schedule. French regions take the two-week ski break and the two-week Easter holiday in rotation, with each region assigned its own holiday period. Scheduling is one of the secrets for making massive holidaymaking economically sound. The system of regional rotation spreads business around so that hotel rooms are filled with a steady flow of tourists all year, and the French maximize use of infrastructure instead of building more.

If you pay attention at the cafe, the restaurant, or the hotel, you'll notice that most of them show a blue crest that reads: chèques-vacances (holiday vouchers). Many French companies give a holiday bonus to their employees in the form of $1,000 in holiday vouchers valid in 130,000 French travel agencies, hotels, restaurants, resorts, and more. Employees have two years to spend the money. Other companies simply build resorts for employees: Some 2,000 companies make 240,000 beds available for their employees in 8,000 resorts. The result? The money stays in France.

We frequently took our own holidays in the French Alps, in villages where the standard farm is a 12-cow operation, on a 45-degree slope. The milking and the cheese are still done by hand and the farmer's bed-and-breakfast operation is a substantial part of his business.

Although 98 percent of the French lead urban lifestyles, they vacation in the countryside. This injection of capital helps preserve ancient ways of life in barely productive rural areas - a major reason French regional cuisine continues to flourish.

And, as even a French tourist will tell you, food is one of the best reasons to take your holidays in France!

Jean-Benoît Nadeau and Julie Barlow are the authors of a new book, 'Sixty Million Frenchmen Can't Be Wrong.'

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